Against the Fashion
By ELAINE MOSS
TN a society where one may find oneself 'penalised for annoying a stamping Machine by using an envelope of the shape it finds indiges- tible, it is not surprising that the paralytic habit of playing safe is infiltrating even into the art of writing for children. Authors are invited by publishers to write for series because series sell; books are coaxed out of nuclear physicists because there is a ready-made school and library market for non-fiction; and for Christmas any- one who can sew up an anthology----`something for everybody'—can also earn the advance to buy his own Christmas presents. But honour is to those authors and publishers who give us poetry, although booksellers say it 'sticks,' who give us the novel with an individual flavour although it tends to be obscured by the mass of novels which cater for average taste, and who have the temerity even to consider publishing a play.
Who but Alan Garner, for example, with his total disregard for fashion (and a loyal pub- lisher behind him), would have had the imagina- tion to conceive and the drive to carry through SO unlikely a project as a book about the preparations for and the final performance of his Nativity Play by the children of his own village of Goosetree in Cheshire? Holly from the Bongs, by Alan Garner (Collins, 18s.), is the name of the play which, together with music for the carols, is an inset in a book of photo- graphs, by Roger Hill, showing every stage in the progress of a dramatic and mystical ex- perience.
There is a hint of the miracle play, too, about George MacBeth's Noah's Journey (Macmillan, 15s.). This is a poetic drama in which a voice, Noah, talks to the trees from which the ark is to be built, to the animals and to the elements; each anwers in his essential character. The poet's vision of Thunder as 'the one who is blundering about. I can hear him in the sky like a lout in the attic' is a vision any child may share, whilst his tight metaphoric descriptions, such as 'Tiger is a stick along railings,' are instantly arresting. Noah's Journey is a practical, humorous poem packed with exciting imagery; it is surely intended for a far wider audience than the book's ill-chosen format and Margaret Gordon's labelled chalk-and-blackboard illus- trations will suggest. This young illustrator is more at home, and showing great promise, in her pictures for Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Green Children (Macmillan, 15s.). Based on an old legend, this wistful story is about two green children from another world who turn up in a pit in thirteenth-century Suffolk. Although they are hungry, the green children refuse to eat until their hosts realise that green children must be fed on green food. 'Whatever Miss T. eats,' as you may remember, 'turns into Miss T.'
But what the witch eats, in Robert Nye's Taliesen (Faber, 15s.), is a boy called Gwion and he, after nine months in her womb, turns into the legendary poet Taliesin 'of the radiant brow.' And all because he has accidentally sucked three precious drops of burning Inspira- tion from the witch's cauldron. Mr Nye's beauti- ful prose, expert story-telling and lively sense of the ridiculous combine to make the legend of how Taliesin competed with the old Welsh bards an exciting gift for children of about nine, who may also be glad to have in their stockings the full text of John Keats's The Naughty Boy (Whiting and Wheaton, 7s. 6d.), since many of them, thanks to anthologists' preoccupation with space, will believe that this deliciously light- hearted letter-poem begins where, in fact, it ends, with the naughty boy (Keats himself) running away to Scotland.
Janet McNeill never runs away. The Battle of St George Without (Faber, 16s.) is a book of considerable stature because in it Miss McNeM does what every child subconsciously hopes an author will do: she looks life in the face—from funerals to toothache, from delinquency to spring daffodils, from dottiness to dependability. This, she says to her ten-year-old readers, is how I see it. And a very humorous, sane and responsible view it is, deeply embedded in a fast-moving back-street story about how a group of children outwit a gang which is stealing lead from the roof of their hiding place, the disused Church of St George Without.
The underworld Down Under is the setting for E. F. Brinsmead's Beat of the City (0.U.P., 17s. 6d.). If you don't talk Strine, if you think 'chicken' is something you 'shop,' and if you can feel no compassion for the young who live by The Slogan—'Our generation is the only one to be born superior to its parents'—then Beat of the City is not for you. Mrs Brinsmead has enormous range: the four young people, the threads of whose lives are briefly intertwined in her story, are a banker's son (whose dream is to be a rocker), a young bricklayer (who wants to educate himself out of his background), a welfare-conscious girl clarinettist (who brings home any stray, animal or human, so long as her aunt will take over the responsibility after the first heady forty-eight hours) and a rootless girl waif looking for kicks—and getting them. This book is as tough as it is sensitive; it is a view of youth for youth, a probe into the true meaning of freedom and the too-high price that must be paid for it in human terms: it is a book about real values in an instant-mix, press- button, with-it teenage world. Not everyone's 'cuppa cappuccino,' perhaps, but for me Mrs Brinsmead is, as her characters would put it, 'the most, but the most.'